UN forces and the Congolese army attacked rebel positions with helicopter gunships, armored personnel carriers and a phalanx of ground troops on Wednesday, ramping up the UN’s engagement in the latest rebellion to roil the country’s east.
The fighting was some of the fiercest in the week since the newly created UN intervention brigade went on the offensive, and one Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed after the rebels aimed artillery fire at their position, the UN said in a statement.
Seven other troops were also wounded, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.
“I am outraged by today’s killing of a United Nations peacekeeper from Tanzania by the M23,” said Martin Kobler, the special representative of the secretary-general in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who heads the peacekeeping mission. “He sacrificed his life to protect civilians in Goma.”
The fighting took place 15km from the provincial capital of Goma, a city that is home to nearly 1 million people and which was briefly captured by the M23 rebels late last year.
The UN involvement in the latest flare-up of violence is in sharp contrast to November, when the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, stood by as the rebels overtook Goma because their mandate was only to protect civilians.
The stepped-up UN intervention brigade, created by the UN Security Council in March, is authorized to take the offensive against the rebels.
“It’s already changing the equation. For now, I would shy away from calling it a game changer. It’s certainly unprecedented not only for Congo, but for peacekeeping itself and the UN at large,” said Timo Mueller, a Goma-based researcher with the Enough Project, an advocacy group active in eastern Congo.
Martin Nesirky, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in a statement that Ban condemned the killing of the Tanzanian and violence against UN peacekeepers generally.
Even as forces pounded the rebels, UN officials continued to send mixed messages about the extent of their involvement, repeatedly saying they were merely “backing” or “supporting” the Congolese military, rather than leading the offensive themselves.
“The main engagement is by the [Congolese] forces,” said Siphiwe Dlamini, a spokesman for the South African military, which contributed troops to the brigade. “We are retaliating and going on the offensive.”
However, M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa, who spoke by telephone, said the UN’s intervention brigade was on the frontline of Wednesday’s fighting.
“It was the UN that was shooting directly at us, from their helicopters. It’s the Tanzanian and South African [UN] troops that are on the frontline. It’s them that we see first,” Bisimwa said.